Small Time Crooks
Screenplay : Woody Allen
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Woody Allen (Ray Winkler), Tracey Ullman (Frenchy Winkler), Michael Rapaport (Denny), Tony Darrow (Tommy), Jon Lovitz (Benny), Elaine May (May), Elaine Stritch (Chi Chi Potter), Hugh Grant (David), George Grizzard (George Blint)
The title of Woody Allen's "Small Time Crooks" would seem to suggest that it is a comedy about crime, but in fact, it is something quite different. Instead, it is a comedy about class.
Throughout the film, Allen seems to be making the point that certain people will fit into the upper echelon of society, while others will never pass the test, no matter how hard they try. While that may sound like elitist snobbery designed to discourage moving up the ladder, Allen's film actually leaves you asking yourself why anyone would ever want to be part of the top one percent. In "Small Time Crooks," all the wealthy characters are either pretentious louts, bubbly airheads, or aspiring crooks, and the final scenes are blunt in their declaration that money can't buy happiness (although stealing a little bit of it doesn't hurt).
This is hardly a new angle for Allen to take. In fact, his long career in comedy has had a solid foundation in making fun of the elite and poking holes in cultural pretensions. This was probably best realized in the now-classic scene in "Annie Hall" (1977) in which Allen lives out a fantasy by taking a loud-mouth pseudo-intellectual who is spouting inflated rhetoric about Fellini films and the work of media scholar Mashall McLuhan and putting the man face-to-face with McLuhan himself, who then informs him that he knows nothing about his work. It was also seen in much darker terms in one of Allen's best films, "Crimes and Misdemeanors" (1989), in which the maintenance of wealth and a high place in society required nothing less than murder.
Of course, despite some of his pretensions of being the next Ingmar Bergman, Allen has always celebrated the low. His earliest farces like "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex" (1972) are testament to his influence on such later gross-out acts as the Farrelly Brothers. "Small Time Crooks" aspires to be Allen's return to more broad-based comedy, but it is a pale shadow of his former glory. While punctuated with a few solid laughs, most of the film is decidedly lacking.
The film opens with Ray Winkler (Woody Allen), an aging ex-con who thinks he's much smarter than he actually is, hatching a plan to rob a bank by tunneling underneath it (which is based on similar scheme in Mario Monicelli's 1958 heist comedy "Big Deal on Madonna Street"). He gets together a gang of moronic criminals played by Michael Rapaport, Tony Darrow, and Jon Lovitz to pull off the scheme, which involves renting an ex-pizza joint and having Ray's wife, Frenchy (Tracy Ullman), turn it into a cookie store as a front while the guys drill in the basement below. The scheme is an utter and complete failure, but Frenchy's cookie store is an overnight success, and a year later they are all literally rolling in the dough.
The first half-hour of the film dealing with the bank-robbery scheme is just a set-up for the film's real interest: watching Ray and Frenchy, obviously low-class Brooklyn types (she's a ex-topless-dancer-turned-manicurist, he's a ex-con-turned-dishwasher), try to fit into uberwealthy high society. Ray balks at the pretensions of going to operas, buying fine art, and eating snails, while Frenchy dives in head-first, even going so far as to convince a British art dealer named David (Hugh Grant) to coach her in how to be high class. That David gives her a copy of "Pygmalion" at one point is a not-so-subtle symbol, as the whole movie is a comedy about why the set-up in "Pygmalion"--taking a low-class street girl and training her in the ways of high society--is so ridiculously absurd.
"Small Time Crooks" certainly has an idea, but Allen never gets the engines running. The early parts of the film are labored and unfunny, with lame jokes about the bungling criminals tunneling into a dress shop rather than the bank and Allen delivering far too many exasperated Ralph Kramden-like lines about wanting to slap his wife around if she keeps arguing with him. At 64 years of age, Allen's comic persona, in all its various incarnations, is starting to wear thin.
Some of the actors fair much better, especially the multi-talented Tracy Ullman. Doing her best Brooklyn accent, her Frenchy is both utterly irritating and wholly sympathetic. Watching her bumble her way through a high-class dinner part--in which she claims to collect Michelangelo paintings and keeps insisting that everyone use the finger bowls even though none of the guests had to use their fingers during dinner--is one of those scenes where you laugh just to ease the pain of watching a naive character making a complete fool of herself. When Frenchy later overhears some of her guests mocking her pretensions, as well as her gaudy taste in home decor, the pain of embarrassment and hurt is palpable.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film is lacking in the bite that makes those scenes work. There is an extended set-piece at the end of the film that finds Ray trying to steal a necklace from a rich socialite during a dinner party. Meanwhile, his "date," May (Elaine May), who is Frenchy's seriously loony cousin, talks about the weather downstairs: "Cool and cloudy this morning, with a chance for light rain in the afternoonŠ." Elaine May, best known as a gifted comedy screenwriter, does her best with a thin role that is all babbling silliness and earnest misunderstanding, but that doesn't mean it doesn't get old quickly.
That is, essentially, the problem with "Small Time Crooks": It has some good ideas, but everything gets old fairly quickly. Allen's flair for writing sharp punchlines and witty jokes (not to mention performing them) is not what it used to be. Therefore, the film doesn't have the same zing as his earlier work.
©2000 James Kendrick